Changing of the guard: Steph Gilmore officially declared “World’s Greatest Surfer!”

Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton vanquished!

I was very busy sailing over the past four days, hunting surf off California’s Channel Islands, running up scraggly hills, throwing rocks at prickly pears, editing forthcoming book and sipping mezcal from small pewter cups with four wonderful friends. It was a good time, great even, but I missed the last two days of stunning Quiksilver Pro competition. Well, not missed, I suppose because of Longtom. He writes better than I see and I’m overjoyed not to let my eyes get in the way of the truth and importance of professional surfing.

Italo beat Kolohe, as you know, and Caroline Marks upset Steph Gilmore but Steph should not be sad for she has just been officially declared “World’s Greatest Surfer.”

“Who declares who is the ‘World’s Greatest Surfer’ and how do they decide?” I hear you ask, with an incredulous edge to your voice, and I’ll tell you. It is decided by the editorial boards of Vanity Fair, Vogue, Esquire, Elle, ESPN and/or Guns & Ammo magazines. It is the surfer that grabs a “World’s Greatest Surfer” headline.

Now, Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton have been passing the award back and forth for thirty years running. John John almost snagged the baubles three-years-ago but didn’t have a “face for media” as they say. And now we have Steph.

Elle magazine has a gorgeous new long form piece on the new “World’s Greatest Surfer” titled “Stephanie Gilmore is the World’s Greatest Surfer. Pay her accordingly.”

I don’t know how much Steph makes but I would bet all my own money that it’s more than Italo Ferreira.

And do you think Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton are sad or do you think they will throw her a welcome to the club party?

If I’m honest, I would not want Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton to throw me any sort of party. Imagine what the two would serve. Purps with added Laird Hamilton SuperFood Creamer festooned with ice from the ice bath we all just got out of.


Final’s Day, Quiksilver Pro: Italo Ferreira King of D-Bah! Part of God’s plan, says Kolohe Andino!

"A great contest wrecked by a lame ending…"

Just to clarify. My little tête-à-tête with John John and his self-appointed minder Peter King happened after his round four heat.

Which, as you recall, he won.

We were both in our professional employ, not in private spaces or training camps.

On reflection, it probably doesn’t reflect anything about John, just a simple case of PK being a “local custodian” and protecting his turf.

And he did make me laugh.

At one point he told me with a straight face that he was a journalist. All good, I can never resent a man protecting his livelihood.

Just don’t shoot me Peter. I come in peace.

Comparisons with UFC or other sports do offer insight, by contrast. A fighter at a UFC presser might be asked about drug use, terrorist accusations, family matters, nothing is off limits. Pro surfers luxuriate in one of the most carefully cultivated bubbles in any pro sport league.

Good for them, on the face of it.

Problem is, as someone suggested, in letting their surfing do the talking, pure surfing is understood by the very few. Even a panel of experts struggle to parse it to within a tenth of a point. Story, drama, character is universal currency. Suppress that at your peril.

Kolohe got robbed in the final against Italo. We all saw it. More on that later. The real story today is what happened yesterday. The ramifications of being beholden to Government Tourism funding smacked the new Commissioner upside the head.

D-Bah was pumping. Silken double overhead peaks.

The decision to put on hold staggered me.

A source close to the top of the WSL cleared the confusion. Contractual obligations to Tourism and Events Queensland were invoked, the income stream from Atlas Pass VIP holders was in jeopardy and needed to be thrown a bone. Stallholders and sponsors set-up at Snapper rocks were baying for blood. Sophie G has made it crystal clear that the commercial reality of the sport has to trump all other concerns, including it seems, holding the Finals in the best surf of the waiting period.

You could not blame Pat O’Connell for wishing and hopin’ for a golden Sunday afternoon in the Queensland sun to a capacity crowd.

Blind Freddy could see it was never going to happen.

Nursing a schooner at the Rainbow Surf club the impervious Tommy Peterson grumbled to me “Fucking nor-easter is up and won’t lay down. They should have gone at D-Bah; there’s no fucken surf coming”.

By 11.45 the wind was into it, the Finals would have been finishing in pumping D-Bah. They went on hold and on hold again. At 12.55 pm a black clad Pat O’Connell emerged from the main tower with a blue towel wrapped around his head Lawrence of Arabia-style.

A phalanx of Red Cameras departed within a the minute and the illusion was shattered for the day, obligations presumedly met.

That left the WSL in the unenviable position of selling a sub-standard Final’s day as a pinnacle when it was clear anti-climax. Competitors struggled, none moreso than John Florence who looked slow and sluggish in the soft peaks. He fell, and fell and fell against Conner Coffin but still managed to prevail after a 6.33 that looked a full point too high.

Despite not a single scoring ride in the excellent range team JJF will be ecstatic with a semi-final finish.

The week played right into John’s hands, away from the pressure-cooker of the Snapper fish bowl with all its scrutiny and potential for an aggressive opponent to test his resolve. Muscular peaks to roam around in and feed on. Freesurfing during the first half of over-lapping heats.

A dream return to competition.

Medina was clearly furious about the monumental failure to capitalise on yesterday’s dream conditions. He sat for half the heat waiting for a wave that never came and looked flat and ponderous on waves he rode.

“It’s hard to compete when there’s no opportunity,” he told Rosie in the post-heat presser.

Rosie stood mute.

I was reminded of the work of the chief Politburo ideology chief Mikail Suslov when rejecting Vasily Grossman’s epic novel about Stalingrad, Life and Fate.

“Why,” he said, “should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us.”

Medina launched another bomb.

“I was surfing D-Bah (yesterday) and it was pumping but whatever.”

Cut back to the booth and neither Ronnie or Pete touched it.

It was left to die. Like the swell on offer, slowly being torn to pieces by the despised northerly wind.

Imagine any other pro sport deliberately downgrading its finale to appease an outside funding body. Putting Wimbledon on a back court with cracks in it and a holey net, shifting a title fight from Caesars Palace to the parking lot.

Jordy and Italo finally brought some fireworks to the day. Trading full-rotation airs with landings of impeccable hygiene. Jordy’s was adjudged a full point and a third the better. Hard to argue with.

Hard to argue with Italo’s response: a flurry of rotations and varials.

Jordy looked confused.

The sheer weight of Brazilian spectator numbers meant a home court advantage for Italo. He used non-priority as a weapon, taunting Jordy with numerous waves under his nose. Jordy looked relieved to concede with the clock ticking down.

Kolohe had dismantled John with a superior make rate and technical advantage in the air, in particular a soft and subtle back hand caressing the rail by the back heel. Sublime aerial technique.

Vision of Italo cruising with his bottle blonde babe in the tent between heats, necking Red Bull and getting loose has to be the defining image of the day.

Surely that energy level had to be depleted come the Final?

Kolohe started strong. They both traded fives with no discernible advantage. Andino surfed a QS-level wave like a jockey coming down the home straight, whipping it mercilessly for a 5.93 and a handy lead.

Italo fell and finally looked drained.

Less than two minutes to go and he needs a 6.93.

The surf has turned to absolute dog caca. A maiden Andino Victory looks almost assured. He lets Italo go on what he called a “knee-high” wave. A decision he later assured us he would make “ten times out of ten.”

Italo launched a flat low and fast spin. The rotation was perfect and clean.

I wrote “Nah”.

But if they do, they’ll highball the fuck out of it.

They did.

The 7.07 was enough for victory.

Italo was mobbed. Kolohe looked to the beach, totally flummoxed. He later ascribed the loss to Rosie as “part of the Lord’s Plan”.

The lord works in mysterious ways but money doesn’t.

With a great contest wrecked by a lame ending we only place certainty in the fact that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

tom hanks
You like isolation? It's got his ups, its downs. Empty waves, hollow conversation.

Quiz: What’s your dream surf scenario? Do you crave community or isolation?

Do you reject the world and crave to live in perfect crowd-free isolation? Or do you chase a brotherhood of like-minded souls?

Picture your ideal scenario for living out a life in pursuit of these useless goals.

What does that look like for you?

Is it surf community? Or surf isolation?

I’m in a quandary.

Some of you who put up with crowds on the regular won’t believe it, but sometimes I yearn for a surf community. I’ve never had that. I’ve surfed alone as often as I’ve surfed with others. I think I’ve missed out on some level of shared joy and camaraderie.

And I missed out on learning to navigate crowds in my formative years. You should see me. I go to pieces. I’m stiff, like a brandy snap.

The idea of boardriders clubs and stolen weekday hours is appealing. The idea that surfing could be something incorporated into daily life, as opposed to a dirty habit that clashes up against it, seems like the answer.

But I’ve been thinking, as is my wont, about isolation. Not really in regards to surfing. But about escaping from all of it. Running away. Fleeing from desire and disease, from the shackles of rampant consumerism and capitalist one-upmanship.

“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

It’s been motivated, as usual, by what I’ve been reading.

A Last Wild Place by Mike Tomkies is a marvel of observation of the natural world. A treatise of the lives and deaths of wild creatures amidst the setting of true wilderness.

The author, once a Hollywood columnist who shared beds, champagne and drugs with some of America’s brightest stars, fled the world at the age of 38, coincidentally my age now, and lived in isolation in the Highlands of Scotland for most of the rest of his life.

He spent hours and days crammed into hides that he dragged for miles into forests and up mountains. All to observe and document Golden Eagles, Scottish Wildcats, Red Deer, Black Throated Divers, Red Squirrels, Pine Martens, and other less glamorous things, like the minutiae of insects, plants and weather.

It’s a book containing such detail that it would be impossible to believe, had it been written in the age of the Internet. The temptation to fill in the gaps with Google, rather than spend aching hours in isolation, with your cold and your hunger, would perhaps be too great.

It made an impression on me that never left. A lingering sense that I’d be happy on my own (or perhaps just with my dog) confronted with the realities of finding food, maintaining shelter. Swaying with the seasons, tuned into the bliss of summer and the brutality of winter.

We’re too connected now to ever be truly alone.

I first read this book when I was ten. Re-reading it now I’m sure I pretended to understand most of it to impress my mum. But it feels promethean. I think it made an impression on me that never left. A lingering sense that I’d be happy on my own (or perhaps just with my dog) confronted with the realities of finding food, maintaining shelter. Swaying with the seasons, tuned into the bliss of summer and the brutality of winter.

Maybe I crave isolation because it’s so far removed from my day to day toil, from butting my head against systems and ideologies I don’t care about. Maybe it’s just because the threads were there for me to follow when I was young, but I never grasped them. And now, some days, I feel like I’m trapped here in the dark, with the monster breathing down my neck.

The Stranger In The Woods by Michael Finkel is the story of Christopher Knight, a seemingly normal man who, at 20 years old, left work one day, entirely without planning or preparation, and simply walked out of the world.

He spent the next 30 years in complete isolation.

For more than a quarter of a century he never slept indoors or spoke to another soul. He endured the harshest of winters in his patch of woodland in Maine, and survived with a combination of resourcefulness and theft from holiday cabins near his secret den.

Christopher Knight didn’t live in the wilderness in the traditional sense, but his commitment to isolation and rejection of society was absolute.

I have my retirement surf spot in mind. But it is remote, and it would be a rejection of sorts. I wonder if that’s truly what I want, or if the idea of just abandoning life is too romantic, or too easy. It’s definitely selfish.

These are my fantasies: walking out without ceremony and just never coming back.

Of course I won’t.

I got a job, and a girl, and kids. I’m not unhappy. I don’t think. And I love them dearly, but disappearing still appeals. Maybe all this yearning is just symptomatic of humanity’s great flaw. We continually want what we don’t have.

I have my retirement surf spot in mind. But it is remote, and it would be a rejection of sorts. I wonder if that’s truly what I want, or if the idea of just abandoning life is too romantic, or too easy. It’s definitely selfish.

So the paradox is this: on one hand I feel like rejecting people altogether. Yet on the other, I yearn for companionship, and the joy of sharing.

What would you choose, given the option?

I suspect the dream scenario doesn’t exist.

I suspect the dream is always taxed.

john john florence
Is the former Champ that fragile he can’t field anything harder than a standard WSL softball question? | Photo: WSL

Day Four, Quiksilver Pro: John John a “sweet kid” who doesn’t need his focus fucked with by your “provocative” questions!

Movie man Peter King acts as block for two-time world champ; Gabe looks flat; Where's Ross Williams?

Terrible, terrible night’s sleep. Something like the sound of a troop of gibbons being rounded up and ripped apart by a leopard woke me up repeatedly.

Moans , screams, hyeana-like laughing: were they dogs, cats, primates?

I’m bunking at the cheaper end of the southern Gold Coast, opposite the airport. A place where older Australians come to die in the sunshine. No one ages like an Australian in the hesperidean furnace of the Queensland sun. Papier-mache skin struggles to hold together cancerous lesions that multiply year on year. Like a rusted-out car they literally fall to pieces.

Yet no one dies happier: nourished by a meat tray at the bowls club, a doctor at the skin cancer clinic with a dab hand on the liquid nitrogen, an Aldi close by.

Through his disastrous start to 2018 before the injury John did not score a single wave in the excellent range (edit: he scored one in round one at Keramas). So far this event he is yet to score a single excellent wave. I count 11 heats with John scoring a single ride over eight.

I know Nick Carroll is now dabbling in the data analysis game which I pioneered after a bass fishing accident with Nate Silver of politics/sports blog 538 fame but here is a set of numbers that John Florence and his team need to fathom, and quickly.

Through his disastrous start to 2018 before the injury John did not score a single wave in the excellent range (edit: he scored one in round one at Keramas). So far this event he is yet to score a single excellent wave. I count 11 heats with John scoring a single ride over eight.

Numbers prior to 2018 don’t count because Pritamo Ahrednt and the judging panel massively changed the scale.

I thought a de-powered D-Bah lineup this morning would favour Filipe. John paddled off the beach, neglecting to utilise the rip next to the Wall. He had eyes for the “hill” peak. Toledo sat a hundred metres away from to the south. They did a slow pirouette around each other and swapped positions. John started with a peachy little tube and a toy air. The score, a 7.33 seemed high for a wave that any competent Coolangatta surfer could ride in similar fashion.

Filipe’s opener seemed low-balled. That point spread gave John a cushion of comfort to sit on. He racked up scores, mauling a close-out in a way only he can do.

Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, sitting solo in the VIP tent, observed he was still operating notches below the pace set by Gabe and Filipe.

The heat dribbled away and a Filipe who has looked a bit lost and low energy was defeated.

In my torment last night, the image of John John kept returning. Despite the Taxi Driver Mohawk the difference in aura/energy between him and Gabe is stark.

I walked next to the 16/17 dual World champ just outside the media tent.

“John, can I ask you a couple of quick questions?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

“A lot of people said that after the incident with Zeke last year that all that aggression and hassling really put you off is that….”

I felt a sharp elbow in my ribs and a solid girth bumped me off.

“Nah, we don’t talk about that,” said the girthy man.

It was Peter King! Manhandling me away from John.

I tried again to approach but his physical being was transposed between myself and Florence.

He was running a block, protecting his man.

But from what? I’m the biggest John John fanboi in Australia.

Is the former Champ that fragile he can’t field anything harder than a standard WSL softball?

Please, don’t get me wrong. I love muscle.

As a Queenslander who has grown up with Sicilian uncles I’ve seen interlopers and gate crashers wish they’d never been born.

But this response seemed disproportionate.

Performances were well down by yesterday’s standards. Conner Coffin squeaked by Kanoa, Seth Moniz looked solid taking down Reef Heazlewood who looked lost without that air wind blowing into the left. Kolohe was too strong for Owen and a much less explosive Medina accounted for Dora. Medina surfed flat and his turns lacked edge.

Jordy Smith, Mikey Wright were in one heat and Italo/Cardoso were in the other when I finally caught back up with Peter King on the Duranbah sand dunes.

A fierce exchange ensued.

The gist of which was, me: “What are you doing manhandling me, keep your fucking hands off me” and him: “You are harassing my friend.”

He said John was a “sweet kid” who didn’t need his focus fucked with by “provocative” questions.

I said I was doing my job and asking him about an incident that seemed to totally derail his Title campaign last year.

One he was likely to face again.

Is that harassment?

Asking the Champ what seems to me a basic question about his preparation for dealing with the aggression of opponents? Too provocative for a 26-year-old man who is a duel World Champion and has tamed the murderous waves of Pipeline and Teahupoo?

The extreme sensitivity would suggest not all is rock solid in the JJF camp.

And where is Ross Williams?

Italo, like Reef, looked tetchy and vulnerable without the air wind to leverage his board against his feet. He fell repeatedly. Snapped out a fin and looked out of sorts and petulant. He did enough to defeat Willian Cardoso who realistically would have to have comboed IF for judges to take notice.

Somehow, though, Wade Carmichael’s brand of power surfing is finding favour with judges. He will need every iota of it to take on Italo in the Quarters.

What do you think of John John’s aura?

Wearing the Mohawk well?

Appropriately, or as a camouflage for deeper vulnerabilities?

Steve Sherman’s Quiksilver Pro Photo of the Day: “Darren Handley ‘pants’ Jon Pyzel!”

DHD understands the power, and humour, of humiliation… 

Wanna know why Jon Pyzel, shaper to you know who, is belting a happy Darren Handley in the guts? 

A few seconds before Sherm hit the shutter, his shorts were almost around his ankles. 

“Darren came up while I was shooting photos of Jon and tried to pants him. Then they started talking pantsing stories and the fucked-up haircuts Darren’ had over the years,” says Sherm. 

Shapers are a popular subject for Sherm, surfing’s Cartier-Bresson, a rare treasure like fourth-century Roman gold. Look through his body of work and Simon Anderson, MR, Maurice Cole, Handley and co feature heavily. 

“They’re god-like mythical creatures on this earth who make these beautiful things,” says Sherm. “Whether it be Simon or Mark Richards, I’m in awe of these guys. I like Jon because he’s brutally honest. He never holds back what he’s thinking. He’s a man who loves surfing and making surfboards.” 

Handley has been a pal of Sherm’s since his first visit to the Gold Coast in 1999, back when he was the prime shooter for Transworld Surf. But it was in 2014, when Sherm’s pal Jigga Johnson, a glasser for Handley died suddenly. 

“Two months later at Pipe,” says Sherm. “Mick is going for his third world title and there are all these boards and Mick grabs one for his heat. Darren says, ‘That’s the last board Jigga hand-sanded for Mick .’He ended up winning the world title on that board Jigga had hand-sanded.

“Jigga Johnson,” says Sherm, the name still tough to say, still warm in his heart. 

“We both just cried like kids.”